Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Met's Superficial Wälkure

No new production at the Met this season has enjoyed as much hype as Robert Lepage's new Der Ring des Nibelungen. A daunting task for any opera company to undertake, (and one guaranteed to garner respect for smaller companies), this new production is to be premiered over two seasons, and is the most expensive ever developed, for any opera, by the Met. Some can say it is part of the Met general manager, Peter Gelb's new vision of appealing to a broader and younger audience. This is a logical aspiration if our culture is to seriously consider the survival of opera as an art form, beyond the gray heads currently pervading the audience. But that was a worry in the 1950s as well, and somehow opera found a home among the baby-boomers. Now it is our turn, and it just warms my heart to see so many educated homosexuals at the Met. So appealing to a broader audience is a nice if not urgent idea, just so long as it doesn't cheapen the art form.
Problems with going too contemporary too fast tend to arise when a new director is more focused on showing off his/her concept than he/she is on the former enhancing the aged musical drama we all love. When done properly and with care, we are reminded that these beautiful old works of art can still come alive on stage, today. A new production must serve an opera the way costumes serve a movie. For maximum effect, they do not detract attention, but instead augment the drama. A good costume designer knows not to flaunt his work above the plot. The music is the most important aspect of opera, and if the visual does not augment the aural, going to opera live would be a very stilted experience. After seeing Das Rheingold and Die Wälkure, it is clear that Mr. Lepage does not understand this hierarchy.
For his new production of Wälkure, he was much more focused on showing off his new 45-ton, rotating, creaky, expensive set, then having it augment the most beautiful moments handed to him by the music. The first act started on the right note when the planks of his "machine" (as the set is called by the cast and crew) slowly rotated into a forest formation, each representing a tree - the woods through which Siegmund is fleeing his attackers. This gradual formation, accompanied by the fleeting music was actually quite beautiful. But then the "machine" continued rotating upwards, forming the roof of Hunding's house. In doing this, it exposed the black rehearsal floor below. If I were sitting in the orchestra, it wouldn't have been so obvious, but from the balcony it was just blatantly ugly, and baffling considering how expensive this production is. Couldn't they blow some fog over it, or something? For the majority of act 1, most of the action took place upstage, hidden underneath this roof contraption. The result was a muffled sound from the singers, which made this emotionally charged music sound distanced and anything but intimate. Why didn't Mr. Lepage choose to use the exposed downstage part of the "machine" until the third scene? When Sieglinde and Siegmund finally moved onto it and out from the mess upstage, I was reminded that they in fact have great voices after all. Jonas Kaufmann sounded like a brave hero as Siegmund, if he at times pushed his voice; while Eva-Maria Westboek rightly existed in emotional turmoil as Sieglinde, even though her voice was often times covered by the enormous orchestra. In regards to blocking, it seemed like during the most of this act, directions were either non-existent or corny and superficial. There was hardly any acting creativity in relation with the music, and when there was, it just looked like a soap opera. I should have just closed my eyes and enjoyed the music.
The second act was redeemed, primarily because of Stephanie Blythe's ravishingly huge and expressive voice. Playing Wotan's wife, Frika is wheeled onstage atop her throne, over a wave-like, earth-shattering set formation. But more earth-shattering, like 9 magnitude level earth-shattering, was her voice, which was suitable for her godess character. Every phrase Ms. Blythe sang seemed to tell a story of anguish, and she was the only singer of the evening who really pulled the audience closer in. I'm sure I wasn't the only person out there tempted to break into applause when she finished singing about the importance of commitment and age-old values. But no, this ridiculous thing we call convention somehow makes is okay to shout continuous strands of "Bravo!" after an Italian aria, while during a five hour Wagner opera it is sacrilegious. I know that fits with the total emersion expected from audiences during Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk (total art form), but we should really be allowed some leeway when not at Bayreuth.
The second scene from act II can be seen as a musical conversation between orchestra, Wotan, and Brünnhilde. The music is incredibly poignant in its intimacy, contrary to many's perception of Wagner being this overbearing and daunting composer. Wotan is talking about the time of the gods coming to an end, a time of which he was the leader. After recounting his past honors, he agonises that it is time for a new era. "Let all I raised now fall in ruins! My work I abandon; one thing alone do I want: the end - the end!" Everything Bryn Terfel (Wotan) uttered this evening fit perfectly with a soul-bearing God. Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), on the other hand, seemed to be struggling to match him in vocal intensity. But once warmed up, she too was living in the anguish. (Never mind that her cheesy costume made her look like a Power Ranger). After the presentation of Frika, Mr. Lepage chose to make no major set changes or blocking decisions until the scene when Siegmund is killed. Just to back up a second, Mr. Lepage convinced the Met to fund this record-breaking "machine" set that seems to have so many uses of potentially beautiful designs. So why doesn't he change it up a little more frequently? When Wotan is recounting the history of the world, Mr. Lepage introduced the most ridiculous orb (or eye?), upon which projections appeared that had more in common with the Lord of the Rings than with Wagner's intimacy. Again, I should have just closed my eyes.
The start of the third act was a clever, if slightly goofy use of the "machine". For the introduction of the Valkures, all eight warrior sisters ride in on their horses. Except each horse here was a separate plank from the "machine". While it got applause from the audience, it seemed to be inhibiting the singers, who were more worried about holding on than projecting their voices. On opening night, one of them actually fell off.
The music towards the end of the third act has a much more forward propelling motion. Wotan is after all about to banish his favorite daughter. The way the music seems to flow in huge waves here makes it very easy for tears to pour down your face. Mr. Levine did a gorgeous job in projecting this beauty. The static manner in which he directed the first act was very different from the way I am used to hearing it - with more momentum like the Solti recording. None the less, it was captivating.
For the finale, Wotan encircles Brünnhilde with a ring of fire that only the bravest of heros should pass through. Mr. Lepage here hung a stunt-double of Brünnhilde from a cross-formation. It was a beautiful moment, if a bit too religious for me and probably Wagner as well, and it would have been nicer to see Ms. Voigt onstage instead, at the end of this beautiful conversation between father and daughter.
In case Mr. Lepage hasn't realized, opera is a little "deeper" than Broadway, or the circus. If my comments seem harsh, it's because after all, this is Der Ring des Nibelungen. The music is just too beautiful to tollerate injustice. If he keeps relying on these superficial special effects next season for Siegfried and Götterdämerung, the new emerging Met audience of educated homosexuals might just have to bitch-slap him. Welcome to the major leagues, Mr. Lepage.